Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen leaves after the closing ceremony of the ASEM Summit in Vientiane November 6, 2012. A high-profile group of leaders and foreign ministers from Asia and Europe gathered at the capital of Laos for the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit, held once every two years and scheduled from November 5 to 6.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen. Photo: Reuters

The Abbott government has sent a senior official to Phnom Penh to take charge of a controversial scheme to resettle refugees from Australia, even before Cambodia signs an agreement to accept them.

Australia has also boosted the staff of its embassy in the Cambodian capital by 10, according to the Phnom Penh Post.

Greg Kelly, who previously worked as co-manager in the support office of international people smuggling forum, the Bali Process, started work at the embassy on Wednesday, the newspaper reported.

Mr Kelly will head Australia’s handling of the arrival of up to 1000 refugees from Nauru under an agreement that is expected to be signed soon with Cambodia’s leaders.

The agreement that has been negotiated in strict secrecy at Australia’s request has prompted widespread criticism from human rights groups, opposition Cambodian MPs and refugee advocacy groups.

A key sticking point in negotiations has been Cambodia’s insistence that refugees come to the country on a voluntary basis.

But refugee advocates say most of the refugees on Nauru will refuse to come as they hold out hope of a policy change and eventually getting to Australia.

“People came to get protection from Australia, why would they go to Cambodia?” said an asylum seeker from Nauru as negotiations became public in May.

“It’s not a developed country. It is poor. It cannot look after refugees.”

The UN refugee agency UNHCR in Bangkok confirms it has been briefed on the basic principles of the agreement.

But spokeswoman Vivian Tan says the UN has not seen a memorandum of understanding that is being drafted, although it has asked for a copy.

Ms Tan told the Phnom Penh Post the number of refugees in the deal had not been discussed and, while the UNHCR had “raised some concerns on the principles”, it was “too soon” to comment on the arrangement.

The UNHCR has only two staff in Cambodia which, in the 1970s and ‘80s, had a huge exodus of people fleeing war and starvation.

Cambodia is one of Asia’s poorest countries where strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled with an iron-first for more than three decades.

About 60 refugees already living there are desperate to relocate to another country, welfare groups say.

Earlier this year Gareth Evans, a former Australian Labor foreign minister, lashed out at Mr Hun Sen, saying his behaviour, including violent repression, had “moved beyond the civilised pale”.

“For far too long, Hen Sen and his colleagues have been getting away with violence, human rights abuses, corruption and electoral manipulation,” said Professor Evans, chancellor of the Australian National University.

Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison last week described Cambodia as a “safe haven” for refugees.

He claimed the agreement would build Cambodia’s capacity to resettle refugees.